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The Forgotten: Here comes the rain again

Yves Allégret is part of that generation of French filmmakers it's no longer safe to ignore, despite their dismissal by Cahiers du Cinema. Continuing the melancholy strains of poetic realism into the post-war environment, Allegret creates, in his best work, a pervasive feeling of despair that's redeemed by a certain romanticism. In other words, he charts the terrain of depression without actually being depressing.

Une si Jolie Petite Plage (Such a Pretty Little Beach, 1949) stars Gérard Philipe as a young man somewhat lethargically on the run after killing the wealthy older chanteuse who had been keeping him (the film is oddly uninterested in the motives that led to this murder, and nobody except the police seem to think any the less of him for it. Curious and slightly sinister). 

For his hideout, Philipe chooses, with fatalistic perversity, the seaside hotel where he first met his eventual victim, where he simply checks in and awaits developments, going for long walks in the perpetual rain and slowly falling in love (the adverb "hopelessly" would be unusually apt here) with the hotel maid (Madeleine Robinson). He's also fascinated by a teenage boy who may represent his younger self.

This is poetic realism at its attenuated last gasp, where fatalism has devolved into near-inertia, and the air of misery seeps into everything like the damp of the off-season resort. It's maybe the wettest film I've ever seen, and not in a splashing, exuberant way, but more seeping. Every species of shower is  lovingly photographed by cinematographer Henri Alekan (a supreme craftsman not usually associated with melancholy noir realism: La Belle et la Bete is more like his usual style): there's mizzle (mist + drizzle); the crushing downpour that makes raincoated men slouch forward like wilting grass; and the persistent patter that amounts to water torture as the day slowly submerges in it. The Scots word dreich, which carries not only the onomatopoeic drip and hiss of rainfall, but the exasperated disdain of the long-term sufferer, is a very appropriate one here.

At times the overwhelming melancholy almost seems forced, but Philipe's earnest and soulful demeanor ultimately overcomes doubt. He's an actor who always carries a shadow of fate and sadness, due perhaps to our knowledge of his early death, but when the role actively demands an aura of sadness he can project it like a blue laser, straight at your heart. There's also a fine role for Jean Servais, a few years before his memorable turn in Rififi, looking immeasurably younger and healthier: whatever happened to him in the intervening years didn't do him any good. And that's the feeling of this film, too: time adds a weight of sadness to a man, until maybe he breaks.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Your description of Allégret’s films being melancholy with a pervasive feeling of despair with some romanticism reminds me of another film from ‘49, Portrait d’un assassin, directed by Bernard-Roland. It too has something of that feeling, an air of defeat that starts from the opening frames but where the events have to still be played out since that is what one must do. It’s an interesting comparison to the US style of the time where the darkness is somehow felt to be more aggressive as it is working against an idealism creating a sense of the stakes being higher as there is something to lose. The cinematography itself seems to suggest this as the darkness and light were often photographed in high contrast as if fighting against each other compared to the low contrast greyness of the French films of the time I’ve seen. This makes the US films feel more dynamic, which often suits the action as the characters seem to be fighting the darkness even if they eventually succumb to it, where as the French films often feel as if the characters are merely marking time waiting to be overcome. You are also right about it being time to challenge the Cahiers assessment of this era of films as they seem to have been rather short-sighted about the films in their own backyard as they were so keen on looking at what was happening overseas. Somewhat relatedly, I am also looking forward to seeing the Raffaello Matarazzo films from the era recently released from the Eclipse collection. While they seem to be very different in tone from those described here, it goes to addressing some of the blind spots in film history that have been too long accepted as being reasonable ignorance. I’d be curious to know if you have any knowledge or thoughts about those or other films of the era worth seeing that may not have had much press.
I disagree with the Cahiers assessment of this era but I understand why they did it, some of which was partly to do with clearing a space for themselves as filmmakers. But I think it’s done film history some damage. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll check out Bernard-Roland!
I agree with both of your points on the Cahiers crowd David. Young artists need to challenge those that came before, we just need to be careful when we listen to them.
Truffaut’s essay “A Certain Tendency in the French Cinema” is one of the most deliberately “misunderstood” ever written. It wasn’t an argument for certain directors as ’auteurs" as a mere matter of taste. It was a radical right-wing Catholic screed wiht all the aubtlety of Michelle Bachmann on a tear. Allegret (Gide’s boyfriend) is quite an interesting talent. As for Gerard Philipe he’s one of the greatest of all film stars. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately as Louis Garel is shaping up as his heir. He has that same classical beauty and gravitas.
I know that Marc Allégret, Yves’ older brother, was Gide’s lover for a time in the 1920s/1930s, but were Yves and Gide also involved? Marc Allégret’s documentary Voyage au Congo is a fascinating counterpart to Gide’s work of the same name. I have seen any of the elder Allégret’s fictiom films for years so can’t recall whether they are of much note.
You’re right it was Marc. My Bad (wrong boyfriend.)
Marc Allegret’s Blanche Fury doesn’t quite catch fire, but has a rather powerful ending. His Lady Chatterley’s Lover has some fairly comical sexual metaphors (post-coital tree felling) but benefits from Danielle Darrieux in the lead.
I don’t see that your assessment is fair. The protagonist returns to the consumptive ville for a kind of redemption, for it is here that the fatal attachment with the older woman he has killed began. He does seek expiation by trying to save the young boy employed in the same capacity as he was, from a similar fate. He has returned to kill himself – he knows his culpability. Allégret’s fatalism does not extend to the hypocrisy of the bourgeoise, which he attacks unflinchingly, and there is certanly no trace of romantacism.
Maybe I just have a more flexible idea of the romantic! What’s not absolutely plain in the film is whether the character feels grief for the boy he once was, and his wasted life, or for the woman he killed. I don’t really see any evidence of the latter, but its certainly within the (also flexible) limits of interpretation if you want to believe he feels it. I saw the character as basically in mourning for his own life.

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